One thing immediately jumped out at me not long after starting Winter Wolves' intriguing visual novel/RPG/dating sim hybrid Loren the Amazon Princess: it's an honest-to-goodness traditional high fantasy tale, and that's something I feel we've seen too little of recently.
I blame Dragon Age and The Witcher, personally; while both are fantastic (no pun intended) series that have done a lot to revitalize the once-stagnant Western-style RPG market, they also popularized the concept of "dark fantasy" in video games -- an aesthetic where the streets of big cities are inevitably full of beggars and pestilence, at least one of the typical fantasy races (usually elves) is used as a stand-in for real-world societal issues, and the City Watch says things like "fuck" and "shit" rather than "by the Gods" and "who goes there?"
I'd like to emphasize at this juncture that I have no problem per se with dark fantasy; I just sometimes think it would be nice to have something that's a little less… you know, bleak. And on that count, Loren the Amazon Princess certainly delivers, while managing to lift itself up above the typical pulp fantasy fare of old-school RPGs with a few twists of its own.
Perhaps most notable about the game's narrative is the fact that you don't play as the eponymous main character Loren. Rather, you play as one of two characters who begin their adventuring career as Loren's slave -- either a musclebound blond lad or a delicate-looking but headstrong elven woman. Through an interactive introductory scenario, you can define what kind of character your protagonist will be, but they'll always have the healing-centric "Hero" class as part of their makeup. This means that although your character isn't necessarily the centerpiece of the narrative -- Loren's the one who gets to wield the obligatory legendary sword and unite the peoples of the land against the looming demonic threat, after all -- he or she always feels important.
In fact, one of the best things about Loren as a complete experience is that everyone who joins your little fellowship feels like they have a reason to be there, whether that's as comic relief or giving you additional context into how the game's fantasy world operates. Through some BioWare-style campfire scenes in which you can chat to the various members of your rapidly expanding adventuring party, you get to know everyone on a very personal basis -- and, admirably, it's possible for either of the two main characters to pursue a romantic relationship with any of the dateable characters, male or female. The game handles these scenes in a nicely low-key manner -- if you decide your protagonist is gay, for example, there's no big deal made out of it; it's just how their relationships with their comrades have developed.
For the most part, there's a reasonably nice feeling of making your character your own in conversation sequences, though dialogue options are always presented as a Friendly, Forceful or Joking approach rather than giving you specific lines to pick from. Likewise, relationship-advancing options are always explicitly marked as Romance, so you're never left in any doubt as to what your choices will result in. On the one hand, this makes it easy to pursue a specific character you might be interested in; on the other, it does take a little of the feeling of "mystery" out of dating them, though this is made up for by relationship cutscenes that sometimes automatically occur when you choose to make camp for the night.
These scenes can be enjoyably awkward, particularly if you're juggling the growing affections of several different characters at once. On one instance, my protagonist had been developing a budding friendship and possible romance with the half-elf fire mage Draco, but had also been somewhat drawn into a bit of a submissive role in his relationship with the rather sexually forthright shapeshifting witch of the swamps Chambara. A little while after the party witnessed a provocatively dressed Chambara emerging noisily from my tent one morning, Draco sidled up to me and meekly asked if it was still all right if he came to talk to me occasionally. I felt bad for the poor guy. Chambara doesn't take "no" for an answer, though.
Loren isn't just about wooing potential paramours, of course; it's also about a grand quest to save the world. Cliched it may be, but it's an enjoyable heroic fantasy epic that will take you to the human and elven lands to stop a war, then onward into the demons' lair to challenge the evil Fost, whose machinations threaten to bring the civilized world to the brink of ruin. Along the way, Loren gathers the aforementioned diverse party members under the banner of the ever-neutral Amazons -- they're the Switzerland of this fantasy world, particularly once humans and elves start thumping each other -- and discovers her own destiny as you, her faithful servant, stand by and support her however you can.
While the narrative may be traditional high fantasy, Loren's gameplay is not quite what you might expect from an RPG of this type. Unfolding largely through visual novel sequences, there's no exploration, mapping or treasure hunting -- though you do get the choice of which order to tackle various quests in at numerous junctures. Stopping off at towns allows you to either shop for equipment -- one aspect of the experience that is a bit of a letdown due to its somewhat cumbersome interface -- or take on some simple tasks to level grind and raise your reputation in the area. These usually boil down to being thrown into combat, and indeed progress through the main story quest is usually gated by combat, too.
Combat itself is a turn-based affair; simple but strategic. Up to six characters can fight on both sides of the battlefield, arranged into two rows. Positioning is important, as some abilities can affect entire rows or columns, and it's possible for party members to swap places or guard each other. It's not a full-on "tactics" combat system, but it's also a bit more than just mashing the Attack button and hoping for the best, particularly once your characters start to learn some interesting special abilities that can only be used if an enemy is suffering a specific status effect. Success in combat is largely about staggering your opponent or inflicting some sort of debilitating effect on them, then exploiting that opening for massive damage. It's satisfying when it goes right -- which, it has to be said, it usually does; even on the hardest difficulty level, Loren isn't an especially difficult game. Good for those who just want to romp through the story; not so good for those expecting a bit more of a stiff challenge from the game's battles.
Still, this is a minor complaint at most; although you engage in combat a fair bit over the course of your adventures with Loren, fighting isn't the highlight of the game -- the storytelling and dialogue is. And although the game's presentation is very simple -- static portraits with occasional event scenes accompanied by text-based narration and dialogue -- it is a lovely-looking game, with some well-designed characters, some beautifully drawn artwork and some evocative, well-chosen background music to complement the action.
And it's a well-paced, streamlined experience, too; random battles are completely skippable if you wish, and none of the sidequests feel like filler or padding. The whole story will probably take you 10-15 hours or so to plow through once, but like most games with relationship mechanics, this is a game designed to be replayed -- with a protagonist of the opposite sex; pursuing different dateable characters; choosing different abilities; favoring different party members in combat; or simply responding to the game's situations with a different attitude. While the game's basic story remains largely the same each time you play, the smaller moments that occur along each step of Loren's journey to realize her heroic destiny change, making this a game worth at least a couple of playthroughs.
In short, if you're hungry for an enjoyable, streamlined fantasy epic that unashamedly eschews the current trend for the darker, more edgy side of fantasy, Loren is an experience well worth having. It's a well-told if sometimes cliched story packed with memorable, lovable characters, and its relatively brief length in comparison to many other RPGs allows you to have a good fantasy fix without having to commit yourself to playing for weeks or even months -- ideal for those of us who don't have as much time to immerse ourselves in fantasy worlds as we might like!
I think I like Loren the Amazon Princess. I think. I'm not sure. I keep checking in with my save file, curious as to where my mismatched party might wander next. Which is weird because Loren the Amazon Princess is swimming with common fantasy tropes, something that usually gets my nose crinkling.
And there are a lot of them, by the way. Among other things, Loren has a wizard who all but resembles a saturnine Gandalf, a rotund dwarf girl with a penchant for being cloyingly cheerful and a poncy half-elf fire mage. These are all archetypes I've seen before, faces as familiar as the skin on the back of my hands. Does it make my eyes roll? Just a little. But the odd bit here is that they kind of work. I suppose this could partially be attributed to the fact that Loren makes no heavy-handed attempts at delivering deep, impactful messages. Instead, Loren works on being an adventure, brisk and fun and loaded with opportunities to romance members of your merry band.
Does it succeed?
Loren is infectiously charming. The narrative eschews being unnecessarily erudite in favour of just, you know, being. Characters will pout, and conversation will occasionally hint of modern-day speech. While it can be sometimes off-putting, it mostly comes together in an oddly compelling way. To my surprise, I also enjoyed the combat system which was, I think, rather smartly worked into the game in spite of the limitations of the Ren'Py engine. While the inventory system is deeply cluttered, the battles were fun enough: I had a veritable field day trying to see what it would take to one-shot recalcitrant enemies. Turning bosses into pancakes at the speed of light? Delicious.
Like Pete, I'd have been happier if Loren was a little less clear cut when it came to the affairs to the heart. Because you need to hit the button prominently marked 'Romance' in order to propel a gestating relationship, there's no mystery to the endeavour. I know who is flirting and I know who is not. I am, after all, the one orchestrating the show. And now that we've brought up emotions and the associated fiddly bits, let's talk about the fan service. Compared to the original version of Loren the Amazon Princess, there's a lot less of it in the Steam release. Nonetheless, rock-solid abdomens and bountiful mammaries are in no short supply. Loren the Amazon Princess is rife with pretty people. Does it bother me? Oddly? No. The males dressed just as skimpily, for the most part. It's an equal opportunity feast for the eyes.
All said and done, it feels like Loren succeeded within the constraints it set upon itself. Though I have a weakness for media which portrays the world at its darkest, Loren the Amazon Princess still managed to win me grudgingly over.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Although Loren's artwork is mostly static with minimal animation, it's a lovely looking game. Perhaps worth noting: the new Steam version features characters who are a little more "covered up" than the original version sold directly by Winter Wolves, in which both male and female characters certainly weren't afraid to show off their bodies.
- Music and Sound: The music is evocative and well-chosen, though there aren't that many tracks. Sound is relatively minimal and voice acting only appears in combat.
- Interface: The interface is a little clunky, as the game is built on the Ren'Py engine, which is primarily designed for making more "pure" visual novels. It's navigable without too much difficulty, just a little cumbersome at times, particularly when it comes to managing equipment.
- Lasting Appeal: A single playthrough doesn't outstay its welcome thanks to a well-paced plot. And if you want to replay, there are several different romances to pursue, along with two different protagonists and a variety of different skills to learn.